Friday Talking Points [116] -- Is It Sausage Yet?

If nothing else comes of it, you've got to admit that the health reform movement has given a lot of people a very detailed education about the sausage-making process in Washington. Remember when the word "reconciliation" was universally understood to mean "getting back together" instead of "open partisan warfare," for instance? The tortuous process health reform has wound in its progress from where we were a year ago to where we stand today at least provided many "teachable moments" on how things actually happen in Washington. And -- as the term "sausage making" implies -- some of it ain't pretty.

This weekend, we may get at least half a sausage from Congress, of course, as a very historic vote nears in the House. The Washington pundit class is currently channeling "The Count" from Sesame Street, as everyone throws darts at the wall, trying to fathom whether Nancy's got the 216 votes or not.

There's really only one way to tell, though. We will all know that "it's over" in the House when Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually announces when the vote will be held. Because Pelosi won't make this move until she is absolutely sure she's got enough votes in her pocket to win the vote. So, as we head into a weekend of nail-biting anxiety over the fate of the bill, the rule of thumb is that if an actual vote is officially scheduled, then health reform is going to pass the House.

The public (as well as the pundits) can be excused for feeling, at this point, like scheduling a visit with their doctors to tell them: "I'm sick. I'm sick of hearing about health reform. Either do it or don't, but please, just put me out of my misery in hearing about it." Or having to write about it week-in and week-out, and desperately searching for unused metaphors to tickle a jaded public's fancy in some way. Ahem.

As you can probably tell, I'll be glad when this is all over. Which, if everything goes as planned, should be around next week at this time, when the Senate votes on the reconciliation package the House is about to vote on. Obama will quickly sign the second bill, and Congress will take yet another two weeks off on vacation, just because. Lively town hall meetings to follow, undoubtedly.

But before that happens, we've got another frenzy of a week to get through. Democrats are currently terrified that no matter which way they vote, they're toast in November. Republicans are terrified that once health reform actually happens, people will like it a lot better than the boogeyman scenario they've been peddling all along. Spending the election campaigning on "repeal the whole bill and start over" may indeed sound like a dandy idea to Republican strategists right about now. But voters are notoriously not happy when politicians try to take something away from them -- so it may not be all that smart an issue for Republicans six months hence, when the health care sky has been proven not to have fallen. Call it the "Republican Chicken Little Moment" if you will (and feel free to insert your own "acorn" joke here, if you feel the inclination).

While the political chattering class is absolutely consumed with the politics swirling around the upcoming vote, some other important stuff happened this week. One-fourth of Senate Republicans joined with most Democrats to pass a bipartisan jobs bill and put it on President Obama's desk for his signature. The media collectively yawned.

Israel set off an enormous debate about settlements by its monumentally rude timing of an announcement they were going to build 1,600 more houses in the West Bank -- while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting. This later led to an angry phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham unveiled a new attempt at a comprehensive immigration bill. The two have been working in a bipartisan manner for a while now to hammer something out that both parties could, in theory, live with. Republican Graham will no doubt find it a tough sell to his fellow Republicans -- in an election year, no less -- but the fate of the Republican Party's future with Latino voters may hang in the balance. To cap this effort off, this Sunday there will also be a massive march and rally for immigration reform in Washington. Look for a fraction of the coverage the Tea Partiers have been getting (although, maybe not -- the Tea Party held a pathetically-small rally in Washington themselves this week, and only a few hundred (at most) turned out for it -- which the media actually took note of).

And finally, Vice President Biden went a little off-script in his Saint Patrick's Day remarks with the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, when Biden mistakenly said "God rest her soul" in reference to Cowen's still-living mother. Biden did realize and correct his mistake almost immediately, but still. Maybe Biden should have waited to drink a Guinness until after his public remarks? No more beer summits for you, Joe! Heh.


President Obama continues to be impressive on pushing health reform, getting out in front of live audiences, and even wading into the lions' den of Fox News. But, as we've mentioned in weeks past, while Obama's "closing rally" does indeed show some impressive leadership, we are still so disappointed that this leadership had to wait six months or more before it appeared. We just can't help imagining what things would have been like if Obama had tried such a full-court press back when Senator Max Baucus was dithering endlessly in his committee. So, by reason of being rather late to the game, we must overlook the president's fine advocacy in the past week.

Both Democratic leaders in Congress get Honorable Mentions this week, for different reasons. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wins one for showing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid how to dig into the parliamentary toolbox and remove a large procedural pipe wrench -- and then use it to beat down the predictable cries of "unfair" from Republicans who used to wield the same wrench frequently (when they were in power and had the keys to the toolbox). If Reid had been similarly supportive... oh, say, last September, when he first announced he had spied the tool in his legislative toolbox... on the idea of reconciliation to break the Senate logjam, things would undoubtedly have moved a lot faster, and we might even have a better bill as a result.

But I come here not to bash Reid, but to praise him. Because -- although little noticed by the press -- Majority Leader Reid emerged as the ultimate winner in his showdown with Republican Senator Jim Bunning at the end of last month. Bunning, you'll recall, put a "hold" on unemployment benefits and job creation, in a snit. Reid, at the time, actually did not back down in the face of opposition pressure. And this week, Reid got a jobs-creation bill through the Senate (for the second time, after differences with the House were hashed out) with a pretty beefy bipartisan vote (68-29, with 11 Republicans voting for the final bill). Of course, the media -- obsessed as they are with the concept of bipartisanship -- gave prominence to this story, right?

Well, no. Anything which doesn't fit their preconceived storyline usually winds up on the cutting room floor, as this news mostly did. But Harry Reid deserves some credit for moving so fast on this bill, and for drawing a line in the sand along the way to passage. And for getting over one-fourth of Senate Republicans to vote for it in the end, as well. Here's hoping we see more of this sort of thing from Harry's Senate in the upcoming months.

But the true winner of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is House Whip James Clyburn. Today, many of you are likely searching the online world, desperately seeking a definitive "whip count" -- which Democrats will vote for and which will vote against the health reform bill. This mostly leads to frustration, because all that is out there is rampant speculation, from one "expert" or another. There simply is no "official" number.

There's a reason for this. The reason is: you don't show your hand in poker before the betting begins. If Clyburn had a list on his website, for instance, which proclaimed "here's officially who is voting 'yea' and who is voting 'nay' on health reform," then it would make it that much easier for Republicans to try to peel those votes off. Whip counts are famously played very close to the vest indeed. And Clyburn, so far, has been doing a good job of this.

Now, Clyburn isn't the most telegenic Democrat in Congress, and some of his media appearances have been a little awkward, but this is mostly due to the nature of the job. He can't answer the question "Do you have the votes?" and still be an effective Majority Whip -- no matter how the interviewer phrases the question. And this has been a tough week for Clyburn, as it is his job to whip the votes into shape for Democratic bills. Meaning the weight of the whole health reform effort has landed on his shoulders.

But -- for the very reason that you simply cannot find an "official whip count" online for the upcoming health reform vote -- through all of it, Clyburn has shown he knows how to do his leadership job. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding on Sunday, but in the past week Clyburn has been the most impressive Democrat out there.

So we offer Jim Clyburn our congratulations for winning this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, and we wish him good luck on Sunday's vote.

[Congratulate Majority Whip James Clyburn on his official Whip contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


The far Left of our awards committee pushed hard to name Representative Dennis Kucinich the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week, for changing his stance on the health reform plan moving through Congress. Kucinich has always been very strong in his stance that if the bill didn't measure up in his progressive eyes, then he simply would not vote for it. A few days ago, he reversed himself, and announced he would, after all, vote "yea" this Sunday.

But while such is dismaying to a certain segment of the Democratic electorate, there was a much stronger contender for the MDDOTW this week -- The (Dis-)Honorable G. Thomas Porteous Jr., a federal judge in Louisiana. Because Porteous just became (OK, technically it was last week) only the fifteenth sitting federal judge to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Porteous is a judge, and judges are theoretically supposed to be apolitical, but the fact that he was appointed by Bill Clinton, and a quick glance at some of his more prominent rulings convinces us that calling Porteous a Democrat isn't beyond the realm of imagination.

The House voted unanimously on all four articles of impeachment against Judge Porteous. More bipartisanship breaking out in Congress! The Senate will begin its own investigation and trial shortly. But with neither party standing by Porteous in the House, it could be a foregone conclusion that Porteous will become one of the only federal judges ever to have been constitutionally removed from office (unless he quits, first).

This is truly a gold standard of disappointing behavior. Which is why, although I understand the Kucinich anger out there, Judge Porteous wins the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, hands down.

[No public contact information for Judge Porteous was easily available, sorry.]


Volume 116 (3/19/10)

Sadly, to fill the hours prior to the vote in the House this Sunday, the punditocracy will be obsessing over "process." This is all to the good for Democrats, because whenever either party starts obsessing over process (and they both are equally prone to this behavior, when in the minority, of course), they come off looking: (1) whiny, (2) like they're going to lose and they know it, (3) sore losers, and (4) whiny. Did I mention whiny?

Because, outside the Beltway, nobody really cares all that much about process. They do care whether something gets passed or not, and what does get passed, but the process stories just mostly bore folks outside of Washington, D.C. The Republicans are about to find this out, once again.

But they're sure going to take their best shot at hyperventilating over the process, because that is simply all they have left. Their other arguments have either been refuted or (for the valid ones) mostly bargained away anyway, so it's getting harder and harder to demonize the legislation itself. Meaning we can expect some Grade-A Prime hot air and blather from Republicans until President Obama actually signs the thing and we can all move on to impeaching Obama for not having a birth certificate, or whatever else is on the vacuous Republican agenda.

To this end, we're devoting a lot of the talking points this week to shooting down such blather. These talking points, as always, are cheerfully offered up for the benefit of Democrats everywhere, especially those holding office and facing a news camera this weekend.


   Up or down vote

Foremost in the attacks from the Right will be the House's usage of the "self-executing rule" to pass both the Senate bill (which will be "deemed" to have passed) and the House changes to it, which will then pass the Senate using "reconciliation." Look for lots of smoke and hot air (and the inevitable references to Our Founding Fathers) on this whole process. Democrats can start the conversation by pointing out a heavy irony here, no matter how the question is phrased. Start out on a light note, in other words.

"You know, the ironic thing about the Republican position on parliamentary process seems to boil down to a very simple example of doublethink. Because Republicans are simultaneously arguing that an 'up or down vote' is a good thing and a bad thing. They want to force an 'up or down vote' on both pieces of the health reform package over in the House, but they also want to prevent such an 'up or down vote' from ever happening in the Senate. Personally, I find this a little amusing, don't you?"


   One single vote

Of course, the interviewer is never going to let you get away with this unchallenged, so be prepared to back it up with a more thorough explanation of the House process. But keep it simple.

"Let me explain the House process. Rather than holding two tough votes on separate pieces of the health reform legislation, House members will have the chance to vote on the entire package in one vote. That's all this procedure does. It makes sense, because passing the Senate bill without the changes is unacceptable to a lot of House Democrats, but passing the changes without the Senate bill in essence attached to it would be kind of silly. So we've combined the legislative process into one vote. That's really all it means. The entire health reform package will get a single up or down vote."


   Used hundreds of times by Republicans

You need to be prepared for this one, because it is likely that the "journalist" won't have done his or her homework.

"I notice that you fail to mention that the last time Republicans were in the majority in the House, they used this parliamentary mechanism in an unprecedented manner -- hundreds of times. Republicans used it back then for the same reason Democrats are using it now -- to avoid politically tough votes that could be 'spun' in political ads by their opponents. There is simply no difference between when Republicans were doing it and now. It is traditional for the 'out' party to complain bitterly about the procedures the 'in' party uses when in power. But to suggest that these procedures are only allowed to be used by Republicans, or perhaps for 'things Republicans agree they should be used on' is just laughable. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. It's only fair."


   Sweeping social legislation

This will be the response to that previous one -- from someone (Republican or "journalist") using this phrase to somehow try to undermine the Democratic position.

"To suggest that any legislative mechanism is being somehow abused to enact, as you put it, 'sweeping social legislation' -- which is supposed to somehow be some sort of unprecedented event in the halls of Congress and therefore illegitimate -- is a joke. Because it all depends on how you define 'sweeping social legislation,' now, doesn't it? I remember Republicans using all sorts of legislative tricks to get their agenda passed, and I don't recall the media having a fit of the vapors over it at the time, either. To me, for instance, massive tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy which shift the American tax burden even further to the middle class is indeed 'sweeping social legislation.' And if such parliamentary maneuvers are kosher for that sort of thing, I don't see why getting 32 million Americans some health insurance is any different. Other than the difference in the people who will benefit, of course."


   Tested in the courts

If the process questions persist on the House vote this Sunday, once again, it helps to have done the homework the "journalist" should have (but won't have) done.

"The self-executing rule has been tested in the courts for almost a century. It has been found a valid and legal way for the House to conduct its business. It is the functional equivalent of a legal 'paper clip' that binds one piece of legislation to another, which is 'deemed' to have passed. Every single member of the House knows what that means -- a vote for (or against) the bill is a vote to pass (or reject) both bills. That's all it is. And if Republicans were so against its use, they would have changed the rules when they had a House majority. They didn't. They used the rule dozens and dozens of times, which were also upheld in court. So now we're in control, and we're doing exactly what they did while they held the House."


   It's all politics

If the interviewer persists (and they will), turn the conversation to the actual provisions of the legislation. Drag the conversation out of the "process" weeds.

"You know, we can sit around and talk about process forever, but it's really all just politics. Republicans wanted to run campaign ads saying 'this Democrat voted for the Cornhusker Kickback' even though they immediately voted to take it out of the final legislation. That's what this entire debate is really about -- fodder for misleading campaign ads. Republicans are annoyed at being deprived of this tactic next fall. But, as I said, this conversation is really pointless, because what we really should be talking about is what is in the bills themselves. Such as... (fill in all the previous talking points on health reform from the past year or so... sigh)."


   Bipartisan jobs bill

This one's a little off-subject, but it's meant to be interjected into the debate with lots of frustration anyway.

"President Obama is right -- the news media seem to only obsess over things that fit the current 24/7 news cycle, and not anything which doesn't fit into your preconceived storyline. Last week, the Senate sent a job-creation bill to President Obama to sign, and it passed with 11 Republicans joining Democrats to do the right thing for America. Bipartisanship exists in Washington, but it's much more fun to pretend it doesn't and focus instead on all the horserace aspects of politics. I applaud the Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for job creation with Democrats, and I hope to see more of it in the future. Congress can get things done, even in a bipartisan fashion, but you certainly wouldn't know it from watching the news sometimes."


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